AT&T Worker With Anxiety, Depression Can’t Show Job Bias

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By Patrick Dorrian

An AT&T call center worker in Memphis, Tenn., who has mental illness, including anxiety attacks provoked by stressful calls, can’t show she can perform her job, a federal appeals court ruled ( Williams v. AT&T Mobility Servs. LLC , 2017 BL 24732, 6th Cir., No. 16-6078, 1/27/17 ).

The case “reflects the reality that there are some jobs that a person with disabilities simply is unable to perform,” the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit said. It involves several issues that have recently been areas of focus for federal disability rights enforcement authorities, including when regular attendance may be considered an essential job function under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Here, the court cited 2015 circuit precedent holding that regular, in-person attendance is an essential function of most jobs, especially ones where a worker must interact with others. Kirsten Williams’ job as a customer service representative at AT&T Mobility Services LLC’s Memphis call center required her to be physically present at her workstation and logged into her computer, the court found.

Thus regular and prompt attendance was essential for Williams, given the company’s written and unwritten requirements for the position, the court said. Her long history of poor attendance, including being absent for months at a time and receiving written warnings about her attendance every year during her seven years with AT&T, showed Williams was unable to fulfill that essential duty, the court said.

Raymond J. Sterling, an attorney who represents employees in job discrimination cases, lauded the court for treating Williams’ claim based on her mental illness the same as it would a claim based on a physical impairment. Mental health conditions historically haven’t been given equal treatment, often being considered “inherently suspect” because unlike a broken arm or other physical injury, they can’t be readily seen, he said Jan. 30.

In that sense, this is “a good case for employees” generally, even though the plaintiff lost and the case in other ways sets bad precedent for employees, the Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based Sterling told Bloomberg BNA. He didn’t participate in the case.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in December released guidance on the job rights of employees and applicants with mental health conditions and a related fact sheet for mental-health-care providers. Aspects of the latter document have been described as a “gift for employers.”

Reasonable Accommodation Not Proposed

Williams had no proof of how her requests for a flexible start time, more work breaks, or additional leave would have allowed her to regularly and punctually attend to her primary job duties, Judge Ronald Lee Gilman said.

Her medical provider recommended she be allowed to take 10-minute breaks every two hours, but Williams didn’t explain how that would have enabled her to deal “between scheduled breaks” with anxiety attacks brought on by customer calls, the court said. Williams, it said, “essentially admitted that she could not perform her job duties during her anxiety attacks.” The medical evidence also showed that she couldn’t work at all for substantial periods of time because of her mental illness, the court said.

Moreover, AT&T told Williams at least twice that the medical documentation she submitted in support of her accommodation requests was insufficient, the court noted.

Assuming the court’s opinion contains “a fair statement of the facts,” this case is probably one that should never have been brought, Sterling said. The record presented by the court shows a worker with a troubled history of poor attendance, who was unable to do the job, and that AT&T had a long history of accommodating her “horrible work record,” he said.

As a result, the decision may set bad precedent for better claims, he said. He said he fully understood the court’s ruling, even though he’s a plaintiff’s attorney. “This seems to me like a weak case with a strong defense,” he said.

Indefinite Leave Not Reasonable

Williams also failed to show how being allowed to take additional leave would have been a reasonable accommodation under the ADA, the court said. She sought further leave as the company was demanding that she return to work, a demand she failed to meet three times.

The EEOC in May issued guidance on the use of leave as a reasonable accommodation for a disabled worker. The agency said an employer’s granting leave as an accommodation is consistent with the purpose of the ADA “when it enables an employee to return to work following the period of leave,” but a company isn’t required to leave a job open indefinitely.

The best Williams’ medical provider could do was estimate when Williams might be able to return to work. Such an estimate, however, doesn’t “necessarily indicate a clear prospect for recovery,” Gilman wrote.

In light of Williams’ history of taking leaves during which her condition failed to improve and her repeated failure to return to work by the dates estimated by her treatment providers, “requiring AT&T to grant further leave as an accommodation would be unreasonable,” the court decided.

Like a blind person who wants to work as an airline pilot, “a person like Williams who reacts to random customer calls with anxiety attacks that require her to log off of her workstation is not capable of performing the essential job functions of an AT&T CSR,” Gilman said.

Judges Richard A. Griffin and Jane Branstetter Stranch joined in the opinion.

Williams’ attorney, Matthew C. Gulotta of The Gulotta Firm in Memphis, didn’t respond Jan. 30 to Bloomberg BNA’s request for comment.

AT&T’s attorney, Charles W. Hill, told Bloomberg BNA Jan. 30 that he would let the court’s opinion speak for itself, and declined further comment. He’s with Glankler Brown in Memphis.

Steven G. Wilson of The Steve Wilson Firm in Memphis also represented Williams. Meghan K. McMahon of Glankler Brown also represented AT&T.

To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick Dorrian in Washington at pdorrian@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com; Christopher Opfer at copfer@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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